Making a necessity of virtue

The Diocletian persecutions (303-11 A.D.) give an insight into the devotion of early Christians, which in turn raises the question: Do we live as they did?

Beginning in 303 the Roman emperor Diocletian initiated a brutal persecution of Christians throughout the Empire through a series of edicts of increasing severity. He ordered that “churches be torn down to their foundation; the scriptures of Christians be confiscated and burned, and that Christians occupying positions of honor and prestige be removed from office and treated as pariahs.” Christian worship was made illegal, and Christians would be tortured until they submitted and offered sacrifices to the pagan gods.

The force of the persecutions at first fell largely upon the clergy. But soon the laity, too, suffered persecution; in some cases the inhabitants of entire villages were put to death when they refused to renounce Christianity.

We owe to a man named “Emeritus” an expression which captures the heroic attitude of Christians under this persecution.

Emeritus was a Christian in the village of Abitine, located in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, in today’s Tunisia. As the Diocletian persecution raged, Emeritus and other Christian friends, disobeying the law, continued to meet weekly in the house of Ottavio Felice to celebrate Sunday Mass. The priest Saturninus presided, and Emeritus served as reader. From the records we also know that a consecrated virgin, Victoria, was a member of this group, and a senator named Dativus.

Imperial officials broke in upon one of their Masses, and these Christians -- 49 of them in total -- were arrested and deported to Carthage, where they were put on trial, tortured, and executed.

During the trial, when the proconsul Anulius asked them whether they kept the Bible in their home, in violation of the Emperor’s edict, they replied cagily but truthfully, “We keep the Bible in our hearts”-- as if to say that their attachment went far beyond simply owning books, and that it therefore could not be destroyed by the destruction of books.

Not that these Christians were relying on their own strength. As they endured mind-bendingly hideous tortures, they cried out, “I implore you, Christ, hear me,” “I thank you, O God,” “I implore you, Christ, have mercy,” and specifically asked God to forgive their torturers.

But it is Emeritus’ reply to a question during interrogation that has since been taken to express the love and devotion of these martyrs. When the Proconsul Anulius asked him, in reference to their continuing Sunday worship services, “Why have you received Christians in your home, transgressing the imperial dispositions?” Emeritus replied, “Sine domenico non possumus” -- “Without the Lord’s Day, we cannot cope.”

Emeritus’ saying has a rich and complex meaning. He was referring all at once to “Dominica dies,” (“the day of the Lord”) or Sunday; and “Dominica cena” (“the Supper of the Lord”) or the Eucharist. And his assertion, “non possumus” means, variously, “We cannot cope,” “We cannot live,” and “We are unable to live as we should.”

In a homily on the Abitene martyrs, Pope Benedict offered his own interpretation. “We need this bread to cope with the toil and exhaustion of the journey. Sunday, day of the Lord, is the propitious occasion to draw strength from him, who is the Lord of life. The Sunday precept, therefore, is not a simple duty imposed from outside. To participate in the Sunday celebration and to be nourished with the Eucharistic bread is a need of a Christian, who in this way can find the necessary energy for the journey to be undertaken. A journey, moreover, that is not arbitrary; the way that God indicates through his law goes in the direction inscribed in the very essence of man. To follow the way means man’s own fulfillment, to lose it, is to lose himself.”

These early Christians had made a necessity of virtue. They attended Mass not because it was an obligation, but because it was a heartfelt need. It went to the essence of who they were.

Someone might ask whether Christians in our time have a similar devotion. For instance, do we love the Lord’s Day in the way that the Abitine martyrs did?

Suppose that there was no precept of the Church saying that you had to go to Mass on Sundays -- would you go? Suppose that you did not get Sunday off from work, and it was up to you to take that day off and lose the salary -- would you do it?

Before you quickly say “yes”, remember that it is a teaching of the Church that Holy Days of obligation, such as the Immaculate Conception, are such that we should rest from work, just like Sunday. As the Catechism puts it: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.” Yet I know few Catholics who take those days off from work. So would we be so quick really to take that one out of seven days off from work, if that were not part of our culture?

Finally ask yourself: Suppose it were illegal to go to Church -- would you do so anyway?

And how much are we like those Abitene martyrs?

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C. for 2007-2008.